Will New NCAA 3-Point Line Make a Difference?

Retired bas­ket­ball coach Mark See­berg dives into 3-point­ers and how they have — and haven’t — changed col­lege basketball.

Will New NCAA 3-Point Line Make a Difference?

Retired bas­ket­ball coach Mark See­berg dives into 3-point­ers and how they have — and haven’t — changed col­lege basketball.

The NCAA rules com­mit­tee recent­ly extend­ed the col­lege 3-point arc from 20 feet, 9 inch­es to the cur­rent inter­na­tion­al dis­tance of 22 feet, 1¾ inch­es. This rais­es some inter­est­ing questions.

Will shoot­ing per­cent­ages at the longer dis­tance remain suf­fi­cient to pull defend­ers even far­ther from the bas­ket, open­ing the floor for more drib­ble dri­ves, as the com­mit­tee hopes? Will this curb the game’s grow­ing empha­sis on the 3-point­er, lead­ing to a greater vari­ety in offen­sive style and strat­e­gy? Will play­ers who lack long-range pro­fi­cien­cy redis­cov­er the val­ue of the pull-up, midrange jumper?

The 3-point­er hasn’t always been the panacea that rule-mak­ers intend­ed. It was intro­duced to reverse the steady decline in scor­ing that had become the norm by the mid-1980’s, and to cre­ate the pos­si­bil­i­ty of an excit­ing late-game chang­er. Yet over­all scor­ing today is still five points low­er than its high forty-nine years ago. Last sea­son col­lege teams attempt­ed 12 more shots beyond the arc than teams did in 1986 – 87, the first year of the 3-point­er, but aver­aged .09 few­er points. 

Over­all scor­ing today is still five points low­er than its high forty-nine years ago.

The most telling trend of all — one large­ly ignored by the media — isn’t the decline in the total num­ber of points scored, but in the num­ber of field goals attempt­ed and made. If you watched a typ­i­cal col­lege game last sea­son, you saw about the same num­ber of bas­kets as your father or grand­fa­ther saw back in the ear­ly 1950s (an era when many play­ers were still shoot­ing one and two-hand­ed set shots).

Won­der­ing what has changed? The def­i­n­i­tion of a midrange jumper. Many pop­u­lar ana­lyt­ic sites use play-by-play” game logs as their fun­da­men­tal source of infor­ma­tion. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, play-by-play logs com­press all shot attempts into three loca­tions, start­ing with the two extremes: shots at the rim and three-point­ers. Every­thing in between is con­sid­ered a midrange jump shot. A 12’ baby jumper is sta­tis­ti­cal­ly treat­ed the same as a shot attempt just inside the arc. 

Most teams today have a no midrange game. In fact, sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions of play­ers have come and gone with­out ever mas­ter­ing a 12’ jumper or sim­ple bank shot from the wing. The vast major­i­ty of today’s young coach­es nev­er played in the midrange them­selves, have no knowl­edge of how to coach it, and don’t under­stand the sets and schemes that pro­duce it. 

Once today’s guards get into an area 10’- 15’ feet from the bas­ket, they force their way to the rim and if denied, attempt to pitch the ball to the out­side in hopes of a 3-point­er. It’s all pre­de­ter­mined because they lack the con­fi­dence to pull up in traf­fic and hit the short jumper. There’s no third option. Defens­es, of course, aren’t stu­pid. They invite the midrange pull-up by tak­ing away the either/​or game, forc­ing the attack­er to take the one shot he is coached to avoid, he sel­dom prac­tices, and has no con­fi­dence in making.

Here’s an inter­est­ing experiment.

Take any giv­en col­lege game and con­vert its 3-point field goals to their pre-1986 val­ue of two. In oth­er words, pre­tend the 3-point arc doesn’t exist. No mat­ter where you are on the floor, you get two points for every shot you make.

What hap­pens to the out­come of the game? Does the win­ner still win?

On the heels of this year’s post­sea­son tour­ney, I ran this exper­i­ment. And guess what? The win­ners and losers stayed the same.

The winners and losers of this year's postseason tournament stayed the same when 3-pointers only counted for two points.

Not a sin­gle win­ner in the final 15 games of the tour­na­ment was deter­mined by its abil­i­ty to shoot the three. The only thing that changed was the mar­gin of vic­to­ry. In nine con­tests, the mar­gin fell, in five games it actu­al­ly increased, and in one it stayed the same.

I’m not con­vinced the NCAA has extend­ed the line far enough to accom­plish its goals. How about you?


Mark See­berg was an assis­tant bas­ket­ball coach at Loy­ola Acad­e­my in the pow­er­ful Chica­go Catholic League for near­ly twen­ty years. He was also a stu­dent train­er for the Notre Dame men’s bas­ket­ball team dur­ing the Austin Carr era, 1967 – 71. Today, See­berg runs a blog on col­lege bas­ket­ball, Bet­ter than a layup.